Johnny Phillips: A tale of two clubs on Merseyside astride a great footballing city

In one city, it has been a tale of two clubs.

Liverpool's Diogo Jota scores their side's first goal of the game during the Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium, London. Picture date: Wednesday March 16, 2022. PA Photo. See PA story SOCCER Arsenal. Photo credit should read: John Walton/PA Wire...RESTRICTIONS: EDITORIAL USE ONLY No use with unauthorised audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or "live" services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications..
Liverpool's Diogo Jota scores their side's first goal of the game during the Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium, London. Picture date: Wednesday March 16, 2022. PA Photo. See PA story SOCCER Arsenal. Photo credit should read: John Walton/PA Wire...RESTRICTIONS: EDITORIAL USE ONLY No use with unauthorised audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or "live" services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications..

The fortunes of Liverpool and Everton could barely be further removed from each other. On successive nights this week we saw why the Premier League is so feted around the world.

Liverpool have somehow hauled their way back into the title race; that combination comprising sheer force of will alongside sustained, top performances at the highest level.

Arsenal were very good on Wednesday night, but just not quite good enough. A ninth successive victory for Jurgen Klopp’s side, and the battle with Manchester City at the top has all the hallmarks of that 2018/19 season, when the country’s top two finished the season with 98 and 97 points.

Now, arguably the two best club sides in the world, spurred on by each other’s excellence, seem set to take the title to the wire for a second time in four years. They have consistently raised the bar and the rest can only look on enviously.

And so to Thursday. On the same day a year ago Everton were on level points with sixth-placed Liverpool, with a game in hand.

There was talk that Carlo Ancelotti’s side could force their way into the Champions’ League places. But come the summer Ancelotti was enticed back to Real Madrid and Everton’s fall from grace was under way.

Although perhaps that fall had been a long time coming.

Ancelotti briefly gave supporters hope but, in truth, there had been some dire times under predecessors Marco Silva, Sam Allardyce, Ronald Koeman and Roberto Martinez.

The blame could not be pinned on any individual, but each manager failed to find a way to turn the club’s fortunes around under an ownership that made bad choices over a long period of time.

As a neutral, it has been excruciating to watch Everton’s demise so far this season. This must be how marriage counsellors feel when a bickering couple sit down in front of them and tear their relationship apart. It all seems so unedifying.

The appointment of Rafa Benitez in the summer was doomed to failure.

The collateral damage was significant, with director of football, Marcel Brands, and best defender, Lucas Digne, both moving on before the unpopular manager himself was dismissed as the season unravelled.

But not all the blame lay with Benitez. He was saddled with spending restrictions after untold fortunes had been spent by owner Farhad Moshiri in recent seasons on players who have not delivered.

Benitez’s summer budget amounted to a £1.7million capture of Demarai Gray and a free transfer of Andros Townsend. His hands were tied.

Moshiri has spent £500million on a squad that is worth a fraction of that. Frank Lampard arrived as some sort of unity candidate at the end of January but, until the visit of Newcastle, he had presided over just one win in six games. There was no new manager bounce.

Thursday night’s game started well enough with a rip-roaring rendition of It’s A Grand Old Team from the Gladwys Street and a fever pitch atmosphere at kick-off.

Goodison under the lights is as good as anywhere. But as the match wore on it soon became apparent that, as with Sunday’s effort against Wolves, we were watching a team so far short of the necessary quality at this level.

Then it all turned a bit slapstick. “Just Stop Oil” read the protestor’s T-shirt, as the pitch invader attached himself to a goalpost midway through the second half. It took an age to free him but, unfortunately for those present, the game resumed.

Somehow the desperate nature of it all made the encounter that bit more engrossing for those of us wincing in front of a television set.

And then another car crash. Brazilian midfielder Allan lunged cynically at Newcastle’s Allan Saint-Maximin to halt a dangerous counter attack.

Referee Craig Pawson issued a yellow card but was summoned to the monitor by VAR Stuart Attwell. Sure enough, Pawson reversed his decision and Allan was off in a cloud of froth and fume directed towards fourth official Mike Dean, whose only crime seemed to be being Mike Dean.

Never in a million years were Everton going to win it from here.

If they laboured so badly with 11 men then how on earth could they raise themselves with 10? But somehow they did. There is a reason they have lasted 68 years in the top division. The dogs of war spirit has never left them through the ages.

Alex Iwobi’s fine finish to the only decent move of the night sent Goodison into a frenzy.

Fourteen minutes of stoppage time. The clock ticked on and on – 108 minutes of appalling and enthralling football.

“We’re by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen” sang the Blues fans to arguably the worst side they’ve had to watch in the last 25 years.

“It wasn’t a night for quality,” said Lampard afterwards. Never a truer word.

The Premier League can be at its most captivating when the quality is at its lowest ebb.

Sink or swim, watching Everton’s top division future play out between now and the end of May will be compelling viewing.

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